Society thrives when it integrates social and human
capital, Tom Schuller and John Field argue. But that cannot be achieved by making it semi-normal for 50 per cent of people to stay on in higher education
There is a lot of learning on the agenda - even more than Labour's well-worn triple-education slogan that caught the electoral imagination in 1997.
We applaud the government's energy in promoting learning. But at least one sacred cow remains to be slaughtered, although the knife is at its throat.
The age participation rate has become something of a virility symbol for members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. But is the extension of initial education, so that 50 per cent of young people go direct from school to further or higher education, a solid foundation for lifelong learning? Does it promote fairer life chances? Is it the best way of using scarce resources?
Keeping more young people in the system undoubtedly raises qualifications. But it overstretches institutions. It absorbs resources that could be better used to weave lifelong learning closely into the fabric of society.
Raising this issue risks the accusation of retrograde elitism. Our research for the Economic and Social Research Council's "Learning Society" programme showed that it can even reduce motivation to learn later on. Rather than entering work ready to continue learning, many young people are only too happy to leave college. Learning is associated not with liberation but with a long dependency.
We are prisoners of an over-simplified model, which conceives of education as an investment in young individuals. The model measures investment mainly in terms of formal qualifications. Cash (and time) at one end, benefits - measured in terms of income or productivity - at the other. The earlier the investment, the longer the stream of returns.
The human capital model has helped to entrench an unthinking, narrow emphasis on learning as something best delivered in large chunks before adulthood begins.
But most recent announcements refer to the 18-30 age group and concentrate expansion in parttime provision. This hugely significant shift should consign to history the simplistic split into "traditional" and "non-traditional" students.
There is an unacknowledged tension between learning as social capital or as human capital, an individual asset. Social capital is usually defined in terms of the norms and networks that enable people to work towards mutually beneficial goals. It focuses on relationships, interactions between individuals and between institutions, as much as on individual attributes. Relationships are difficult to measure and to strengthen; but this is the challenge. Social capital is not a replacement for human capital.
On the contrary, it suggests that both the drive for economic efficiency that underlies so much policy and a desire for social inclusion demand extra dimensions, beyond the accumulation of individual skills and qualifications. Social capital as a concept has been taken up in a major way by the World Bank, with a string of projects designed to help communities pool their human capital, sharing information and building trustful relationships. It is being applied in myriad policy fields, from achievement in schools to crime to community cohesion and public health.
How does the notion of social capital help us think about how to build a learning society?
First, it reflects the complexity of our modern world. It challenges linear models, with inputs at one end and outputs at the other. Because it stresses complexity and interrelationships it appeals to the fashionable commitment to joined-up thinking.
Second, it implies a longish timescale. Quick action is needed on learning policy and extra resources. But developing a stronger learning culture will take time. It involves building trust, securing mutual cooperation and changing values.
This is the third advantage of social capital. It reintroduces norms and values into the policy debate. It points to concepts, such as trust and cooperation, as things we should be safeguarding and building. It raises questions about how relationships supportive of learning as a social activity are to be sustained. Criticism of the analyses that flow from the concept is one thing; but sceptics should produce alternative visions if they are to carry credence.
Social and human capital are integrally linked. Developing a healthy relationship between them will not be achieved by making it semi-normal for young people to spend most of their first two decades in formal education.
Tom Schuller and John Field are professors of lifelong learning at Birkbeck College and the University of Warwick respectively. They are both members of the National Advisory Group on Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning.